Quit the Grind: Other Ways to “Level”

In many RPGs you reach a point when battles are neither novel nor challenging, when you’re just going through the motions for gold or experienceーalso known as grinding. It can kill any momentum the game had going, and it turns play into work.

The problem is that grinding is hard to avoid in the standard RPG formula where each battle pushes you closer to the big “level up.” You’re inherently rewarded for grinding, and sometimes forced to by sudden jumps in difficulty.

Many classic RPGs have explored alternatives here, tooーlet’s see how they handled “leveling up.”

LIMITED NUMBER OF ENEMIES
This is the most simple solution- you can’t grind if there aren’t any more enemies!

This is used by many Strategy RPGs (Fire Emblem, Front Mission, etc.) that they are divided into stages with a set numbers of enemies. This of course requires careful planning by developers to make sure the player doesn’t get stuck somewhere at a low level. Many offset this danger by making experience gains relativeーkilling a lower level enemy might get you only one experience point, while a powerful enemy sends your EXP skyrocketing. This keeps characters around an average level throughout the game.

frontmission
Battle in Front Mission for SNES. Great character portraits by Yoshitaka Amano and gritty atmosphere.

This way the player can keeps pushing forward without the distraction of grinding, which has always been one of my favorite things about SRPGs compared to RPGs. You never “forget where you were,” so the story is easier to follow and enjoy.

ALLOW THE PLAYER TO DIE
Sometimes you have to grind just to survive sudden jumps in difficulty, which goes against what I think RPGs are all about: exploration and discovery. Let’s say you reach an exciting new cavern to explore, but instead of going in you have to first grind through some easy battles in the woods for 30 minutes with the same old monsters you’ve seen before. Not very bold or adventurous.

So it’s nice that there’s no such thing as Game Over in SNES games like Metal Max 2, Gokinjo Boukentai, and Romancing SaGa 2. If you die, you simply start back in town and can try again. This enables you to actually explore new areas, even if you’re not sure you can survive.

In little-known-but-super-cool Metal Max 2, a mad scientist finds your corpse, drags it back to town and brings you back from the dead without penalty, which somehow suits the wild and crazy, post-apocalyptic world of the game.

metal max 2
Metal Max 2: the SNES RPG version of Borderlands (an English version was also recently released… 😉 )

In Gokinjo Boukentai (“Neighborhood Adventure Troop,” another virtually unknown gem), each time your party dies you actually get a stat boost, making the dungeon easier next go round. Although this basically rewards the player for dying, the game is pretty easy to start with so its not worth dying just for a minimal stat boost.

gokinjo_boukentai_screen_11
Gokinjo Boukentai’s graphics are hyper-cute and sometimes disturbing, somehow reminiscent of Earthbound.

Romancing SaGa 2 is set up so that you play as multiple generations of emperors. If your party ever dies, you simply choose a successor and start again from the throne room. You actually benefit from playing as a variety of emperors, so it’s worth it to accept your death and move on. There are some super tough boss battles that I don’t think you’re expected to win at first, and its fun to encounter them later in a new generation. An Emperor dies in an epic battle with one of the Seven Heroes, but his successor comes back decades years later to avenge his death… It makes for an epic tale!

RSII94-2
A new Empress is born in Romancing Saga 2.

STORY-BASED GROWTH
The only game I know to do this is Chrono Cross (someday I’ll write a post that doesn’t bring up CC, I promise). Stat growth comes (almost) only from beating bosses and mini-bosses in the main story-line.

This keeps the story moving since there’s not much to be gained from fighting random battles. In fact, after getting the few small gains possible between bosses, I usually avoided enemies altogether and ran from any fights I accidentally engaged. Thankfully, CC is one of the few games where running away actually works 100% of the time. (“Running Away” deserves a whole post of its own, come to think of it…) Fleeing is also nice since CC’s battle song will drive you literally insane and make you want to imprison the composer.

chrono-cross-ep-8-mp4_000848352
Chrono Cross characters get semi-random bonuses at each new star (ie after each boss battle).

I could go on, but let’s just say Chrono Cross’ star system is original, interesting, frustrating and confusingーlike the game itself.

ENEMIES MATCH PLAYER LEVEL
The only games I know of to do this are the Romancing SaGa series (sorry for also bringing RS up constantly, but hey, it and CC are super innovative, I can’t help it!). Enemies are divided into basic categories like undead, beast, and fish, which you can see from their sprite in a dungeon, but the enemies that appear in battle vary depending on how strong you are.

This makes true open-ended world exploration possible. The exact order of quests doesn’t matter because enemies will always be at a challenging level. Even some bosses changeーthe Seven Heroes of RS2 have drastically different “forms” depending on which “generation” you face them in (…which is awesome).

I find this a lot more fun than games like Skyrim and Borderlands (though I love Borderlands), where quests become laughably easy if you don’t tackle them early enough, or you stumble into an area that is way over your head.

The Romancing SaGa series further limits grinding by making stat gains random and incremental. You can’t just “reach the next level” and get big boosts. Instead, you get a little HP here and another skill level with axes there, gradually becoming stronger. These incremental gains are also more likely to happen when facing bosses or otherwise dire situations, so easy-peasy random battles won’t help you much.

Romancing Saga 3 44
Someone’s been using her axe in battle!

OTHER WAYS
It’s hard to think of approaches to “leveling” that don’t boil down to grinding for some kind of currency, whether it is experience, gold or items. But combinations and tweaks of the above approaches could lead to some fun new experiences.

For example, in the games that let the player die, death is still a bit of a setback since you lose your physical progress. But what if you could continue on afterwards? If you were not expected to win every single battle (as you are in most RPGs), the difficulty and strategy of each fight could be considerably higher. Losing might simply bring in less experience or bonuses, but not halt your journey through the dungeon.

Another possibility is for equipment to have a much greater impact on abilities than character level. If equipment were also super rare, than finding a new equipment would be a major event and potential game changer. This would focus the player on the joy of discovery as they push the story along in search of better equipment.

If you think about it, taken to the extreme, no grinding means no gains from random battles, which means random battles become pointless to a degree, which means that the solution might require doing away with random battles altogether.

On that note, what if the limited number of enemies approach of SRPGs was used in a traditional open-world RPG. What if you could actually eliminate those monsters bothering the villagers one by one, and they stay gone. You would probably feel like you actually had an impact on the world and that each battle was actually meaningful… What a wild idea!

I think this is an opportunity to be creative and liberate players from the ongoing horrors of grinding. How do YOU see it happening?

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16 Responses to Quit the Grind: Other Ways to “Level”

  1. Jules Defoy says:

    I don’t remember the specific game, but I remember a system where every stat increased according to how often it was used: accuracy increases when hits land, HP increases when you lose some, defense goes up when you take damage, etc. The problem with this is that, depending on how it’s balanced, we may have replaced grinding for levels with grinding for stats, which might be even worse.

    I also saw the opposite in action (though this was in a tabletop RPG), where you only gain XP when you fail actions, with the underlying logic being that you’re always as good as you need to be, and failing allows you to learn from your mistakes (I think this was Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies).

  2. Jack says:

    Reblogged this on Tome and Tomb and commented:
    I’m all for both different methods of character advancement and different types of “leveling.”

  3. Garth Llewellyn Barley says:

    Another interesting list of alternative mechanics.
    I have a long history of hating how games use leveling mechanics, since story heavy games usually use the more traditional kill monsters gain xp grind-fest that kills the story’s pacing, and the few tactical games I have played have very restrictive leveling, making it more story focused or just not that important.
    Glad to see there are some games that do leveling well.

  4. Person says:

    The method I prefer is to simply make a game fun enough that playing it is sufficient reward, because it requires a little bit of skill to master. You don’t see levels in multiplayer FPS games or ‘simulation’ style games, yet “amazingly”, people still play them. Only a moron would think that some type of shallow “advancement” reward is an absolute necessity for a game to be worth playing.

    • wzackw says:

      It’s not absolutely necessary, but there’s definitely some fun/value in leveling, and I think we can figure out how to enhance the fun part more and take out the parts that aren’t as fun.

  5. Looks like you mostly looked at JRPGs in depth here and didn’t really explore the leveling mechanics of some innovative western RPGs. For example in Gothic I & II, you only got skill points when you leveled, but this didn’t make you any stronger. You had to find someone in the world who could teach you the skills (like magic, acrobatics, sneaking etc.) and use your skill points there. Also these “teachers” had to like you or else they wouldn’t teach you anything. It was impossible that everyone in the world liked you so you couldn’t learn everything and also the skill points you got were really limited. There was no auto-leveling of the monsters (some people could get stronger over time I think, though) and you started out as a really weak dude who couldn’t even win a fight against a wolf. So going out into the wild unprepared could be your death, and people that didn’t like you could also fight with you, but they didn’t have to kill you they could knock you out and just take all your money.

    My second example is Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, I prefer it to Skyrim & Oblivion, because it didn’t have auto-leveling of enemies and you could kill every person in the game, and even the main story characters (even the GODS). It didn’t take you by your hand and told you, you shouldn’t go there, you shouldn’t kill these. You could explore everything freely, but if you got into dangerous territory you would soon notice it and try to get out of there or sneak your way around.
    It had almost the same leveling system as Skyrim and Oblivion, but I think it is still the best leveling system out there. You just level the stats that you use most… if you don’t like magic, you won’t level it. But there are no classes that hinder you to become and axe-swinging mage thief.

    Then there’s also Dark Souls (this is of course not a WRPG but its no JRPG either). The great thing about the leveling system in DS is, that it doesn’t even matter that much (you can get through the game with level 1 if you are really good). Most of the “leveling” happens in you… you as a player get experience from failing and learn from it and do it better the second time around. The game leveling happens with souls which is the main currency and also used for everything else, buying weapons, items. And the world is also “open”, although not that free as in Skyrim, because there are multiple paths and you can choose which one to go, and they are all intertwined. Nobody tells you which path is the best, if you go in one direction and fail too much, you can try another. The monsters are not leveling, but are even dangerous if you think you are too high level for them.

    I guess this is one of my main points, auto-adjustments of enemies really sucks.

    Some people might consider this really frustrating, that you are so weak in the beginning, but I think for experienced gamers it is really great, because the world feels like it could really exist. You can’t just walk unprepared into a dungeon with a mountain troll and be sure that you can handle him because of auto-leveling. And it makes you that much more proud when you, at some point, are stronger than most of the enemies that you know. It really respects your growth. What’s the point of leveling if the rat is always as strong relatively as in the beginning. It also opens up more possibilities. If you are confident, you can try to fight monsters that are strong in the beginning and if you do it, you can feel proud of yourself. If you are not so confident, you can try to max out every skill that you can, or sneak around dangerous battles until you feel confident enough to tackle the challenge.
    It never felt like a grind to me in Gothic or Morrowind (you can argue about Dark Souls), the leveling and growth just happened as a by-product of exploration and questing.

    ..Ok that was a really long post, sorry for that 🙂
    I hope you get my point.

    PS: I’m not talking about random battles, random monster spawning etc. ..these usually also suck.

    PPS: For everyone who liked Skyrim, not for the graphics, but for the large open world and the many quests, should really revisit Morrowind. It has a much larger world, many quests, stunning locations, great lore.
    But beware fighting system is pretty bad (you are rarely hitting enemies when your stat is very low) and there is not full voice acting, so you have to read a lot

  6. JustRadek says:

    One thing I haven’t seen mentioned here or the lengthy discussion on Gamasutra is the original purpose of the grind: to extend play-time. I don’t think many JRPGs these days have mandatory battle-grinding of any kind. Instead, they’re often extended through brutally long-winded and inane dialogues that lack any real interaction (binary choices that have no effect on the game don’t count).

    Good job on covering the systems of Chrono Cross and less-known titles like Romancing SaGa. Maybe you’d like to look at crafting systems in the future? They’re not as mandatory as grinding used to be, but present actual gameplay and can have a huge impact on the duration of a game, e.g., Monster Hunter.

  7. Xavier says:

    Nice interesting thoughts on RPG mechanics, as always! I’ve been thinking about someday making an RPG where battles are actually rare, really only story events, where you are faced with antagonists who are not open to discussion. That would add weight to each battle, and of course the game would not end in case you are defeated.

    Basically I agree it’s time we have less grind, and more interesting/meaningful content!

    • wzackw says:

      I’d love to work on an RPG someday! Seems like a big project that requires a big team though. But I’m full of ideas. And it is fun when battles are rare enough that they stay fresh!

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